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Gender, Work, and Digital Technologies
February 26, 2008, 11:53 pm
Filed under: 2008

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Old Stuff

In evaluating women’s relationship to the Internet, one of the more important factors is women’s relationship to paid work. Claims by management gurus and technological pundits that the information infrastructure will create jobs and accelerate the trend towards a knowledge economy replete with lifelong learning opportunities need to be investigated. Particular issues to examine include:

• What jobs are being deskilled by the introduction of computerization and networked communications? For instance, if libraries are being wired, how is this affecting a workforce predominately staffed by women?
• Are women using networked technologies in entrepreneurial ways? Are women significantly involved in the commercial end of networking (i.e. as consultants, owners of businesses, content creators)?
• What are the obstacles (e.g. educational barriers, lack of affordable childcare) facing women who seek to enter and thrive in the high tech fields?

In particular, the impact of telework on women needs to be explored. Oldfield (1991) writes that the triple workload of women teleworkers (paid work, housework, and childcare) creates added stress, dependance on a spouses’ wages, an increased risk of poverty, and isolation. Oldfield suggests that narrow-scope public policy strategies for improving the lives of women teleworkers include ensuring that: homeworkers are guaranteed employee status by union membership; homeworkers are included in a broadening of legislative protection such as through unemployment insurance benefits; and that real-life and virtual networking organizations are created, whose goal would be to reduce home isolation and disseminate public awareness information for teleworkers.

So far, public policy has not addressed the broader social issues of telework (Borowy and Johnson 1995). For instance, telework has been promoted as a way for women to work at home while performing childcare responsibilities. This promotional stance does not recognize the added stress that juggling these dual roles can create for the employer as well as for the teleworker and her family. The creation of flexible childcare arrangements for the teleworker who may need erratic or less than full-time care needs to be addressed. This attention seems unlikely, however, given the dismal record in North America of investing in quality childcare at the federal level, and the trend towards eliminating support (at state or provincial levels) in favor of privatized or ad hoc arrangements.

Oldfield refers to the “not-so-hidden agenda behind telework: mandatory self-employment” (Oldfield 1995, 16). Indeed, many telework because this is their only option in a jobless economy littered with contract and part-time work. Telework accords with turn-of-the-millennium ideal of virtual corporations, staffed by virtual employees who can expedite models of electronic commerce. Women who telework could find that the gains they have made in the workplace have been eroded because their virtual presence isn’t as important or impacting as their real presence in the office. The obstacles to cracking the virtual glass ceiling are likely to be overwhelming.

However, some women find that the benefits of telework, such as flexible work and social arrangements, outweigh the disadvantages. As both governments and corporations downsize, work and workplace are being reconceptualized by technological advances. Given the trend towards the redomestication of many forms of work, from low-level clerical entry jobs, to professional symbolic analyst work, many women find that this flattening of hierarchies is advantageous for them.
For good or for ill, women are part of the new digital environment. It is important to measure how women are actually using computer networks and online services. What functions and services are they most likely to use? What kinds of content do they desire? What impedes their use—economic factors, technical factors, or a lack of interest?

Ref’s

Borowy, Jan and Theresa Johnson. 1995. Unions confront work reorganization and the rise of precarious employment: Home-based work in the garment industry and federal public service. In Re-shaping work: Union responses to technological change, ed. C. Schenk and J. Anderson. Don Mills, ON: Ontario Federation of Labour, Technology Adjustment Research Programme: 29–47.

Oldfield, Margaret. July 1991. The electronic cottage—boon or bane for mothers?: Observations from an empirical study of mothers doing clerical work on computers at home. Paper presented to the Fourth International Conference on Women, Work and Computerization, Helsinki, Finland.

Oldfield, Margaret. May/June 1995. Heaven or hell: Telework & self-employment. Our Times:16–119.

Excerpted from Shade (2002)

See also:

Gender and Work Database at York University

Ursula Huw’s homepage – tremendous resources re telework etc.

****

Krista Scott-Dixon, Doing IT: Women Working in Information Technology (Toronto, Sumach Press, 2004), pp. 244 pp, ISBN 0-894549-37-6 (pbk) $26.95 CDN. In Information, Communication & Society 9(4)(2006):

While many recent books provide interesting examinations of how the giddiness of the late 1990s new economy boom, accelerated by information technology (IT), crashed into the economic deceleration of the present day, with a few exceptions, there is a nuanced absence of gender analyses in discussing work and labour. Scott-Dixon’s book then, fills this research gap admirably and should serve as a useful model for scholars interested in pursuing studies of gender, technology, and work.

In the 1990s Canadian government policy, through the creation of various programs aimed to ameliorate the digital divide, tax incentives for IT-intensive R&D, and enticements to develop computer science and technology curricula in post-secondary institutions, had as its goal to be “the most connected nation in the world.” Dissecting this discourse, through government and business pronouncements, statistical snapshots, and interviews with women working in the IT sector, Scott-Dixon provides us with a solid feminist political economic critique of the multi-faceted dimensions of IT work, and specifically, its implications for women.

She situates her research in what she calls a materialist analysis: a grounded perspective that “examines what women are actually doing and experiencing” (p. 23). The main question that structures the book is: “what are the material conditions of women’s work in information technology” (p. 23). Sixty in-depth interviews with Toronto-based women working professionally or semi-professionally in the IT field complement a critical scrutiny of new economy newspeak, particularly human capital theory and the notion of skills.

The first chapter situates women’s IT work in context, which, Scott-Dixon argues, is a product of structural and individual factors, shaped by power relations and contradictory elements, as IT work both empowers and constrains women in diverse ways. For instance, IT self-employment – such as running a web-design business out of your home – can mitigate the exorbitant price of pre-school daycare, or it can aggravate domestic responsibilities and create ‘more work for mother’. The flexibility attached to IT– its asynchronous and unbounded attributes – can further reinforce occupational and industrial segregation, as women are shuttled into the more service-oriented aspects of IT work, such as call centre operations, client services, and marketing; even graphic and web design, one could argue, reflects a feminization of the IT sector. Gendered trends in IT employment are further reflected in the prevalence of men in ‘hard’ IT jobs, such as software and hardware engineering, internet architecture, etc., which is often exacerbated by age and educational attainment.

In the second chapter, Scott-Dixon argues that social location–an intrinsic facet of women’s labour force experience– is buried under the mantra of ‘skills development’, where individual self-empowerment is reified in the knowledge-based economy. Skills are further conflated with progress, an underlying premise of human capital theory, which “is appealingly simple, fits well into capitalist models of free-market investment and return, and seems to offer us some clue to women’s lower job status and salaries in the IT industry. It tells us that women make less and are valued less because they have fewer skills” (p. 72). The women Scott-Dixon interviewed reveal several patterns in their acquisition of technical skills: the most technically-skilled women received parental support, particularly from a father; educational environments in computing and engineering discouraged women from pursuing advanced degrees, while acquiring certain vocational IT skills presented cost barriers; and the male-dominated IT workforce was not welcoming to women. Despite this, some women thrived in the IT sector, feeling that their liberal arts background lent an inherent degree of flexibility and a holistic appreciation for certain skills, such as programming, what Papert and Turkle described as ‘epistemological pluralism’.

The remaining chapters raise crucial questions related to changing work practices and the material conditions of work, propelled by global economic competitiveness and neoliberal realities–contract work, non-standard work practices, telework, and outsourcing–new forms of IT service work which portend a distinct feminization of the IT workforce. Alongside this gendering are also raced divisions.

Scott-Dixon concludes by arguing for the insertion of feminist voices into the IT industry in order to put an emphasis, not on the technology per se, but on the labour force itself. Going beyond mere equitable access to IT includes promoting diverse workforces, paying attention to gender and social location, educating workers about their rights, and promoting worker autonomy, creativity, and communication.

Leslie Regan Shade
Associate Professor
Concordia University
Montreal, Canada


 

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